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'High' review: An inventive Indian series with much to say (and to snort)

'High' asks the question: If scientists developed an anti-drug, one that could cure addiction and restore the lives of junkies, how would the drug mafia and Big Pharma react?

Akshay Oberoi (left) in MX Player's 'High'
Akshay Oberoi (left) in MX Player's 'High'

I was hit hardest by the carrot. High, streaming on MX Player, is a show about drugs and gangsters and contains much violence and intrigue, but what struck me with the most immediacy — illustrating what we have become used to in our lives today — was a sequence where a Naxalite scientist, on his remote hideaway, asks the show’s heroine to eat a freshly grown carrot. “You don’t need to wash it,” he laughs, and, despite her arduous blindfolded journey to reach the scientist, it is this little realisation that drops her jaw. The thought of a clean, non-GMO carrot feels alarmingly fictional today.

Therefore this smart show — directed by Nikhil Rao, written by Rao, Emil Thomas and Nishant Goyal — throws up villains both obvious and not. At a time when most Indian shows appear to be approximations of shows we’ve seen elsewhere, High presents us with an original, high concept what-if: What if some Indian scientists developed an anti-drug, one that could cure addiction and restore the lives of junkies? This substance would naturally be opposed by the drug mafia but also by Big Pharma, who would do anything to protect their medicinal bottom-lines. Both sides, worried about a drastic reduction in users, want to quell such an antidote.

We meet the show’s protagonist, Shiv, as he pinballs from hit to hit, having flushed career, romance, relationships all down the tubes of substance abuse. A savant who has taken to gambling for small dens to pay his rent, he overdoses one evening at a Mumbai bar and — after friends make privilege-flinging “know who my father is” requests to the management — is whisked discreetly away to an unofficial rehab facility outside the city. Here he finds a few lines of familiar-looking white powder to snort, but their effect is far from anticipated. Instead of finding a ‘fix,’ he actually finds something that fixes him, removing the all-consuming need for the next high. Suddenly he can see straight.

What he has inhaled — as High tells us through black and white flashbacks in each episode — comes from a wild herb a group of scientists hunted down in the 1970s and tried to channel into a wonder-drug. The idealists creating this miracle cure faced lethal opposition and have been doing this on the sly for decades. Now, with the cure close to readiness, a lack of funding may force them to scuttle the operation. This is where Shiv suggests they sell the cure the way they would a drug, and the do-gooders become reluctant drug-runners.

It is an engaging set-up, although the first episode and a half of High are an abject slog. I was warned by a friend that it would take a while for the hit to kick in, and there is much unnecessary meandering before the show lays down its compelling premise. You may start from the second episode — there are nine hour-long episodes in the first season — and have a better experience. Once the cards are laid out, however, High gives you a group of unlikely heroes to root for, as it vaults cleverly from thrill to jagged little thrill.

Akshay Oberoi is solid as the droopy-eyed and gradually self-aware Shiv, moving forward so rapidly as if he fears slowing down. Oberoi wears the restlessness and tentativeness well, putting on a brave face the way only someone accustomed to being out of his depth can. On the opposite end is Mrinmayee Godbole playing a popular (i.e. sensationalist) TV news anchor — we first see her next to a fake bathtub reporting on the death of an actress — who, tired of not being taken seriously, wants to become an actual journalist, but hers is a journey laced with caveats (not to mention carrots).

Most of the characters fit no mould. Madhur Mittal (from Slumdog Millionaire) is electrifying as a hip-hop loving gangster who wants to be a bigger threat than he really is, while Prakash Belawadi and Virendra Saxena play two very different kinds of scientists. The finest performance comes from Ranvir Shorey as an ice-cold hitman — wearing a quiff and mowing people down like a relentless, evil Tintin — and while it feels novel to see Shorey doing a John Wick, the best character moments involve him sitting in cheap dives with chauffeurs of the men he’s chasing after, winning their confidence with cheap whiskey and manufactured empathy.

It is a visually sharp show, giving us Mumbai from atypical vantage points, and while budgetary constraints show — there is nothing 1970s about the black-and-white flashbacks, for instance, except checked shirts and rotary phones — the originality in character and setting compensates.

This is an ultimately satisfying series, setting up its world and characters while doing enough leg-work to ensure curiosity and conflicts for a second season. While High can feel predictable at times (and that dawdling first episode is unforgivable), there is much to be said for the meditative clarity promised by its drug, and the way the show refuses to judge those who may be addicted. That is a stance with substance. I’m most impressed by the fact that, for all its messiness and simplicity, High is absolutely, inextricably local. This herb is homegrown.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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